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April 12, 2006

Can words be reclaimed? Harry Phibbs considers whether the term "right wing" is beyond rescue

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Tim Montgomerie on - a site which has fast become the leading place for Conservative Party activists to debate the future of their party - has today launched the inaugural Conservative Movement Awards. These awards will honour the contribution of individuals and organisations - including newspaper columnists, bloggers and think tanks - to British conservatism in its widest sense.

Such awards, at least in part, are an exercise in consciousness raising. They are in part about making people proud to proclaim themselves to be conservatives in this wider sense. This raises the question, can words which have a negative connotation to many - such as conservative and, much more clearly, right wing - be reclaimed and used with pride by sensible people? The term conservative can surely be salvaged; however the term right wing is in a more parlous state. Here journalist Harry Phibbs considers whether it is beyond rescue.

One of the changes that David Cameron has brought in as Tory leader is to ditch the label "right wing". In his Party Conference speech he declared:

Some say that we should move to the right. I say that will turn us into a fringe party, never able to challenge for government again. I don't want to let that happen to this party - do you?
Maybe Cameron is sensible to give this assurance. Describing such ideas as supporting parliamentary sovereignty, or the rule of law, or greater individual freedom, or a smaller state, as right wing tends to put people off. Of course Tory policy is up for review so at the moment the changes are about tone and emphasis. We have had this presented as a change of policy. But it is not. The Conservatives were never in favour of poverty or pollution. But if people thought that they were and no longer believe them to be than that is an advance. If part of that process is resisting the description "right wing" then why not? In the case of the Conservatives adopting the term "social justice", despite its specifically egalitarian origins, I have objected (in The Salisbury Review, Spring 2006). But is it worth dying in a ditch to persist in proclaiming oneself as "right wing"? Why not reject it?

The alternative is trying to rescue the label from being caricatured. At the moment being right wing is presented as being on a wavelength, on a journey which has at its extreme conclusion being Nazi or Fascist. On BBC Radio 4's Any Questions on 24th February there was a discussion about David Irving's denial of the holocaust. Germaine Greer said:

He has just revealed himself to be a nutter and he probably thought in Austria, which I have to say is a very right wing place in my experience, that he probably thought he'd get away with it, which is even nuttier.
Fellow panellist, Lord Tebbit chose to challenge Greer's use of the term right wing. Here is an extract from the transcript -
TEBBIT: Well first of all I'd take slight issue with Germaine Greer. Remember that the Nazis were the National Socialist German Workers Party, they were socialist, they were not right wingers [AUDIENCE NOISE]. Most really wicked nasty anti-Semitic racists like Stalin and Pol Pot and all that lot have been left wingers. The guys that committed all the murders in Serbia were ex-members of the Communist Party and that doesn't make them right wingers either...

DIMBLEBY: Do you regard ...

TEBBIT: But ...

DIMBLEBY: Do you regard Hitler - well as you say - do you regard Hitler as - you think of him as a left winger?

TEBBIT: Yes, he was the [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] he was the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party ...

DIMBLEBY: But parties have names don't they without it necessarily being the case that they represent what they say they are?

TEBBIT: Well perhaps that's maybe your view but I take the people at their ... he was not in favour of individual liberty, he wasn't in favour of a small state or anything of that kind, he wasn't in favour of free trade. Nothing to do with the right wing for god sake.

After Lord Tebbit, the Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne came on and suggested that Hitler must have been right wing because he killed so many liberals, Communists and Socialists. But on that logic Stalin was right wing. Hitler also killed lots of his fellow Nazis, it didn't stop Hitler being a Nazi. (Of course the BBC have decided to deal with this by suggesting that Stalin was right wing. They got used to describing as "conservative" or "right wing" the hard-line Communists in the former Soviet Union.)

What was significant was not what Tebbit said but the reaction to it. Jonathan Dimbleby, the rest of the panel and the audience greeted the comments with shocked disbelief. I don't believe on this occasion it is just a problem with BBC bias. I believe that Hitler is unthinkingly accepted as having been "right wing" by the vast majority of people. If people could be persuaded to give the matter some thought they might well change their view but I don't think people will get to the stage of thinking about it. Thought is irksome. "Everybody knows" Hitler was right wing. So Tebbit's pronouncement was greeted with shock and scorn and ridicule although nobody was able to challenge it in any coherent way.

Often one hears the term "to the right of Genghis Khan." The Tory Euro MP Dan Hannan took issue with this in a recent letter to The Spectator when he wrote:

I'd have thought Genghis was a clear-cut leftie. His tactic, on conquering a tribe was to liquidate the aristocracy and elevate the lower orders. He was a proto-Europhile, mingling his subject clans so as to prevent the development of a national identity. Where modern socialists want to use the education system to cut high achievers down to size, the Khan was more literal, forcing his vassals to walk under a yoke and decapitating those who were too tall. He was even an early metricator, organising his soldiers according to a decimal system. Genghis can be considered right-wing only in the BBC sense, as a synonym for "baddie".
Some who give Hitler, or Genghis Khan, the right wing label would concede that as totalitarian systems Nazism, Fascism and Communism have a lot in common. Political ideology is often portrayed as a circle where extreme left and extreme right meet in the middle. This has always struck me as a curious use of left and right - if they are not opposites what is the use of the terms? If everything can be explained in a circle where do you put the libertarians who want a minimum state - or indeed the anarchists who want no state at all? If the terms are of any use then the more right wing you are the smaller you want the state to be, the more left wing the bigger you want the power of the state.

But if common acceptance of the definition that I have given is unrealistic what is the use? How can the communication of Conservative ideas be effective in making converts if others aren't talking the same language as the unconverted.

Finally, I don't believe we should have too much sentimental attraction to the term. It comes from the French revolution and describes where people sat in Robespierre's Legislative Assembly. But while they may have had their differences the Left and the Right were all revolutionaries in a repugnant cause of mass terror and class war. Burkean Conservatives reserve their allegiance from that time and place for those on the guillotine.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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Cameron had better ditch the term "conservative" while he's about it, because he's not.

Posted by: Damian at April 12, 2006 11:48 AM

Enjoyed what Tebbit was saying - just one query. Tebbit says:

Most really wicked nasty anti-Semitic racists like Stalin and Pol Pot and all that lot have been left wingers.

Stalin as an anti-semite makes sense - the Doctors' plot and all that. But Pol Pot? Never heard of his anti-Semitic utterances. A miurderous, wicked dictator, sure - but an anti-Semite? Cambodia does not strike me as a place with a particularly large Jeiwich community.

Posted by: Anon at April 12, 2006 11:58 AM

Are you Pommies now so gutless that you can't even admit that being "right wing" is the norm. The lefties are the ones who should be ashamed. After all, their policies have led to social breakdown and rampant idiocy. The left's policies continually fail to deliver. Yet it seems that the British people are fooled because the lefties' ideas "sound nice." The fact that they don't work is neither here nor there. Mrs T broke through that. Mr Cameron must do the same. He must present a right wing vision. If he doesn't ewant to call it that, OK, but that must be the Conservative way.

Posted by: Peter L at April 13, 2006 02:47 AM

The First Directorate of the (Soviet) Comittee for State Security, otherwise known as the KGB, was responsible for disinformation, much of which attempted to strengthen the perception that communism and facism were polar opposites, rather than as we know now, merely a matter of what colour jackbooks the executioner wore.

This issue is a living legacy of those times and that disinformation campaign, kept alive by the former communists, fellow travellers and useful idiots (borrowing Lenin's phrase) who now comprise almost the entirety of British government and media people over the age of forty.

Along those lines, the good Mr Phibbs might consider resurrecting quotes in favour of terror, of IRA murder, and communist revolution uttered by people like Trevor Phillips, Jack Straw and David Aaronovitvch during the 1970s, inside and outside the NUS. It would make amusing reading.

Posted by: s masty at April 14, 2006 01:35 PM

With regard to the question about the Nazis and it's connection to the Right wing of politics: Tebbit was right but he doesn't seem to know why.

Hitler and the Nazis were of course Socialists, National Socialists.
Stalin was a Socialist, an International Socialist. He would tolerate no opposition to his particular brand of Socialism, whether Bolshies, Trotskys or Fascist.
I do not have the precise date but sometime before/early in WWII Stalin decreed that any opposition to his leftwing International Socialism was not Leftwing but Rightwing.
Hence when the split with Hitlers Socialists came about they were greeted with a chorus of "Rightwingers" from all on the Left, esp. and including those Socialists and Communists in Britain who were sympathetic to both brands of Socialism before the split up.

The 'link' to Conservatives, Tories and anyone on the Right came about with special enthusiam following the defeat of the 'Rightwing' Nazis post WWII. Any policy, any ideology and suggestions that came from the Right were smeared with association to the failed Nazi losers, whilst the victorious and hence morally superior Leftwing Communists were able to claim the moral high ground and make any policy without risk of vile epithets being hurled at them. They have done so ever since.
This deception is one of the most destructive and obnoxious
smear campaigns in my memory. The Communists and other Leftists know full well that they supported and were allied to Hitler's Leftists in the 1930s. But to the victors go the laurels and the ability to rewrite the history.

Posted by: glen at October 3, 2007 05:36 PM
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